Making Sense of the Interviews

Photokina tends to generate a lot of interview pieces, as it’s one of the few times where the mainstream photographic media gets access to Japanese camera company executives (short of traveling to Tokyo, of course). We’ve had a long string of such interview articles and videos appearing in the last month (see bottom).

It may be that I live in a swing state and the current onslaught of political ads that claim opposite mostly untrue things has me more skeptical than usual, but at every trade show I tend to be pretty skeptical about what is said by executives from camera companies. So I’m skeptical of many of the things heard at and around Photokina this year.

Over the years we’ve been promised multi-stop improvements, “fastest autofocus ever,” and had to slog through very carefully worded statements about current and future development that seemed like heavily camouflaged flack jackets. We get lots of optimism—and we should, since these shows are marketing opportunities with lots of press around and it would be pretty terrible marketing not to be optimistic—peppered occasionally with some strange purposefully vague or noncommittal statements, as well.

I’ve been dealing with Trade Show Speak for 40-odd years now, and getting accurate, candid, and useful information out of Executives on Parade is tough. Extremely tough. And rarely done. 

Perhaps the best in the camera business at this is Dave Etchells at Imaging Resource. It usually takes some time before he gets his long interviews transcribed, verified, and posted, but I’ll be curious as always to see what he managed to get out of the camera companies this time around (his Sony interview is listed below). There are often gems in his interviews.

Meanwhile, we have a lot of sites repeating marketing statements that were made and then instantly re-interpreting them. I’m not going to do much of that here. I did notice that a lot of the statements were almost word for word with the statements I’ve gotten, so the PR handlers are definitely doing their job this year. 

The reality is, we have this hype around big product announcements all the time. In a few cases the actual product delivered matches the statements made—Nikon’s pronouncements about more accurate and faster autofocus with the D5/D500 release, for example—and we’re all happy. In other cases the promises fall flat. Again the D5/D500 release—this time the implications of much better lower light handling—which turned out to provide marginally better image quality results in low light, not the large differences people expected from the statements.

But here’s the thing you really need to be careful of: many of the statements being made are about products that aren’t available yet to test. They’re about future products the media hasn’t yet had a chance to evaluate. I have to say that the statement I found most objectionable was from Olympus, where they’re claiming that the future E-M1 Mark II is better in dynamic range than the past Fujifilm X-T1 (a camera released over two years ago). This is where things get a little crazy, especially given that the X-T2 is out and can be measured ;~). 

So I take executive pronouncements at trade shows as what they are: marketing. The job of a reviewer is to ferret out the marketing promises with the practical reality, and that’s what I’ll be doing as all these future products come to market. (Yes, I know I’m still trying to catch up with the last batch.)

This doesn’t mean I’m not excited about the products. In particular, I’m very interested in seeing the Canon EOS M5, Fujifilm GXF, the Olympus E-M1 Mark II, and the Panasonic GH5 when they show up on dealer shelves. We’re in a period where we continue to get interesting and useful incrementation in products, and an occasional big(ger) surprise. That’s what we users want, and the more companies that can keep pushing the envelope in camera capabilities, the better. Competition is always a good thing.

But let’s actually measure the competition, not just respond to executive pronouncements at trade shows.

All of which brings me to dpreview’s interview with mid-level Nikon management at Photokina. To say that the quotes from that interview are strange is understatement, I think. A number of you have asked me about them, so here’s a few that struck me as needing explanation of some kind:

  • "...the KeyMission 360 has a very wide angle of view. But this kind of category needs the size to be wearable.” Okay. But exactly how do I wear a 360? I’ve got a 360 on its way to try to figure that out, but from what I’ve seen at the shows I’m not convinced Nikon actually addressed the “wearable” aspect. Instead, we get "Our competence is high quality imagery. So we will continue to keep that our core competence and apply it into the KeyMissions.” Again, okay. But the two things—quality and wearable—need to be designed together to rise above the other products, and I’m just not seeing it at the moment. These were two marketing managers doing the interview. I think that Nikon’s marketing is missing the mark here. For example, I can see mounting the 360 on the handlebars of my mountain bike, or on the bow of my kayak, or on the front of my Land Cruiser. Those aren’t “wearable” situations, they’re mount-to-show-participant-and-environment locations. We need a word for that and Nikon needed to be in front of pack in marketing it. Yes, “immersive” and “VR” are on the right track, but Nikon seems more intent on marketing against GoPro at the moment than trying to establish themselves as leading a new charge. The 360 should be a new charge, and “wearable” has little to do with it.
  • We launched the WMU app so we had kind of experience for this setup process. We tried to improve, to make the setting easier. But still some of you might feel it’s quite difficult. Now three or four steps are needed to connect camera to mobile phone. We are trying to reduce steps from four to one, and finally zero.” You all know that I think this misses the point. Yes, it’s nice to reduce the setup steps, I’m all for it. But if the setup took 10 steps but the actual act of sharing an image was seamless and stepless, would we be really complaining? Setup is a one time thing, sharing is forever. 
  • "If we use Bluetooth you can use Wi-Fi at the same time.” Really, Nikon? The implication here is that the camera uses the Bluetooth connection to get the image to the smartphone, the smartphone uses its Wi-Fi to get the image to where you want to share it. And by the camera not tying up the smartphone’s Wi-Fi the user doesn’t have to switch anything (e.g. which Wi-Fi connection the smartphone is using). But isn’t the more likely practice that the user wants is to have the image moved from camera to smartphone by Wi-Fi (faster) and then shared via cellular connection? I need to hear much more about the design approach here to understand what Nikon is really thinking. The current solution is slow and cumbersome, which is the antithesis of what those that want to share images want.
  • "The Nikon 1 concept is fit [sic] for some customers. For now we’ll keep Nikon 1 as usual.” Those customers seem few and far between in the US and Europe, and even Japan. Nikon’s mirrorless market share has gone down, so it’s not a lot of customers wherever they might be, either. And the “for now” is one of the most passive marketing statements I’ve ever heard. I’ve written this before: Nikon knows the Nikon 1 is basically a failure. It certainly failed to do what they intended it to, and it failed to command the price they wanted for it. Plus the DLs—should they ever arrive—really make the Nikon 1 superfluous, as comparatively they are a watered down UI with worse lenses with the only gain in being able to mount different lenses, most of which don’t match the watered down UI customer. I fear that the “for now” means that the Nikon 1 is “supported” while Nikon is transitioning to the DLs and whatever mirrorless choice is next. 
  • "Because our product mix covers full-frame and APS-C DSLR and the Nikon 1, these three product categories mean we offer to the full lineup and we receive each customer’s good reactions.” Arguably, Canon has a better three-category line (EOS M, EF-S, EF). Moreover, Canon is gaining market share while Nikon is losing it, so one has to consider the implications of that. I’ve written tons about how Nikon’s inability to keep DX customers perfectly happy is losing them customers to leaking and sampling of mirrorless, and not Nikon’s mirrorless ;~). 
  • "The J, S and V models are different categories. The V series is sort of special, people they well know about DSLR, what is a photograph, they understand these ideas.” This is so condescending as to be embarrassing. Especially since a few moments later these executives seem to say that the DLs are for FX DSLR customers. Is Nikon really saying that J customers don’t know what a photograph is or what DSLR controls are? Wow. That’ll come as news to a lot of J5 users. 
  • [the V3 is a] fit for professional photographers' demand. It’ll never be the main camera for a photographer but it can help them a lot.” Okay, many of you know that I’ve been saying that since the V1. But come on Nikon, just one real world use example would help prove the point. One. Is that so hard? Remember when I wrote about the V1 that is was interesting in that you could take a pro golfer’s swing at 20 fps silently, something we never generally see in images from golf tournaments? Did Nikon’s marketing ever pick up on that and bring that thought to life? Not really. Marketing Fail. 
  • "DL’s concept and target is users of the D800 series.” Okay, stop laughing. I know exactly how Nikon came to that conclusion, and it makes a little sense. You see, the D800 and D810 attracted quite a few casual enthusiasts. The D8xx bodies haven’t been big sellers because it’s all pros buying them; instead, a very large percentage, maybe even majority, come from well-heeled consumers trying to buy “the best.” At least the best that makes practical sense to them (the D5 is too big and heavy). Nikon did a number of surveys of D800 buyers. Guess what they might have learned? ;~) Yep, that group wanted a really competent camera that they had with them all the time, and the D800 was great, but big and heavy. Moreover, all of us pro shooters do have a smaller pocket camera with us, and generally it hasn’t been a Nikon. So, yes, the DLs really are an attempt to bring DSLR-think down to a series of carryable compacts. Unfortunately, go back and read the remarks on Nikon 1 in the previous bullet. Oops. Which camera(s) is the DSLR user going to carry as their everywhere camera, DL or Nikon 1? 
  • "Even the power switch is in the same position as on DSLR.” It took how many years for Nikon to discover this? If controls aren’t broke, don’t fix them. If items are in the right place in the menus, don’t move them. You build brands by consistency. Consistency that resonates with the customer, and that the customer can grow with. So you don’t move switches all over the place. You put them where they’re most convenient to the user. Note to Nikon: when you move the power switch on a future camera, what reason are you going to give? ;~)

There was much more said in the dpreview interview, so I invite you to read it yourself. The section on video was particularly interesting, as it revealed that Nikon themselves can’t figure out which customer(s) they’re designing for. Seems to be a common problem over at the Tokyo headquarters, I’d say.

All that said, talking with managers at trade shows is a bit like talking to politicians at political events. Both have agendas and messages they want to get across, whether you’re interested in them or not. Neither are consistent in their messaging, and as circumstances change the messages change right with them. 

Nikon really needs to figure out what their brand means and execute to that. I get the strong feeling that they’re randomly chasing rather than directed leading. 

If you’re interested in various interviews made at Photokina, here’s a sampling:

text and images © 2017 Thom Hogan
portions Copyright 1999-2016 Thom Hogan-- All Rights Reserved
Follow us on Twitter: @bythom, hashtags #bythom, #dslrbodies